Water fight!

No, this one has nothing to do with balloons or hoses. Instead, the Honolulu City Council will soon start its push to end the Board of Water Supply‘s “semi-autonomous” reign over one of the island’s most precious natural resources.

Budget Committee Chair Ann Kobayashi told Civil Beat last week she’s already been working with city lawyers to bring the water board under the control of the Council and Mayor Peter Carlisle. They’re crafting a resolution that would give voters a chance to approve a Charter amendment in the 2012 election in November.

The seven-member Board of Water Supply was created in 1929 and has been semi-autonomous ever since. It serves as the steward of the island’s fresh water resources, a responsibility that includes regulating and protecting watersheds and setting rates for consumer water use.

The money residents pay for their water is kept separate from the city government’s general fund and is supposed to be used to provide water and maintain the system of pipes needed to do so.

But Council leadership doesn’t want things to remain separate, and says the new rate hikes already impact city operations.

“It affects our budgets also. If they keep raising our rates, it makes it very difficult for our taxpayers,” Kobayashi said, referencing the 70-percent-over-five-years water rate hike approved by the board in late 2011. “I think that we should have a complete budget rather than having them separate, and no oversight by the mayor or by the Council.

“It’s hard to say who is responsible for what. I’ve been urging that they look at making better use of the properties they own like the one on Beretania,” Kobayashi said. “That isn’t why I’m doing the charter amendment. I just feel like we’re one city, and they already have our sewer fees on their billing. So I just don’t see the downside, and I don’t understand what the benefits are to keeping it separate.”

Kobayashi also criticized the board’s substantial lobbying expenditures in recent years. In 2006, it was revealed that the board gave out more than $500,000 in bonuses to executives even as it was raising water rates.

Council Chair Ernie Martin said he’s also considered introducing a Charter amendment and looks forward to the discussion.

“Primarily with the proposed increase to the water rate, there was really no discretion that the Council had in terms of requiring them to come to the Council and provide a rationale for those increases or whether the increases could be deferred over a number of years to lessen the impact to the consumers,” Martin told Civil Beat.

Kobayashi said she spoke with Carlisle about the idea and that he was receptive to it and would talk to Maui about how that county brought its water board back under the the auspices of the government nearly a decade ago.

Carlisle’s executive assistant, Jim Fulton, provided the following statement to Civil Beat in response to questions: “The administration is aware of the discussion regarding the Board of Water Supply structure and is reviewing the issue.”

The Board of Water Supply was also mum. A representative said Civil Beat’s inquiry was the first time the board had heard about the proposed amendment. He said the agency needed time to review the proposal before commenting.

Denise De Costa, who worked for the department for more than 20 years and now serves as vice chair of the board, said moving water under the administration and Council would be a mistake.

“When I received word that this idea was being proposed by the Council members, it was greatly disturbing. It is bad public policy to place control of water in the hands of elected officials,” said De Costa, who also served as City Clerk for five years. “I see the water system as a public trust, and my role is to help protect the water supply for the good of the ratepayers and the public.

“I think it’s wise to just leave the Board of Water Supply as is and encourage improvement in our operations,” she said.

De Costa and the other members of the board are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Council. They have five-year terms.

This won’t be the first time the merits of the board’s semi-autonomy are up for debate — in fact, it’s been happening for more than 80 years.

The City and County of Honolulu — A Governmental Chronicle tells the story of early Honolulu, both before and immediately after statehood. Author Donald D. Johnson shares stories about mayors and Boards of Supervisors, which predated the City Council, dating back to the early 20th Century.

Here are Johnson’s notes on the Board of Water Supply:

In January 1930 the territorial supreme court upheld Act 96 of the 1929 legislature, which had created the Honolulu Board of Water Supply. Democratic opponents of the measure, including Mayor (Johnny) Wilson, insisted that this was an illegal invasion of the city’s functions. They also objected to it as improperly removing the vital water system from the control of the people’s elected representatives. The new board, under the act, was to be appointed at first by the governor and later by the mayor, with approval by the supervisors. (page 121)

Johnny Wilson, Louis Cain, (Harold) Borthwick, (Manuel) Pacheco and other party leaders continued to condemn the board of water supply, parks board, police commission, and other agencies created by legislative act as taking power away from the voters of Oahu. Their appeal was not altogether convincing, however, since a number of Democrats had once advocated at least some of those changes in the name of honest and efficient operation. (page 136)

Apparently, many people, in office and out, felt that through such commissions and boards the politics within vital city agencies could be reduced. Administrative uniformity, in other words, seemed less important to many than the reduction of political pressures on at least certain types of city workers. (page 145)

The Board of Water Supply managed to fight off, at that time (1958), proposals to make them simply a regular administrative department with a director appointed by the mayor. (page 245)

There have been more recent spats, as well.

In early 1974, according to the board’s website, the water and sewer systems were combined under the terms of a Charter amendment. But later that year, election records show, voters approved by a narrow 93,944 to 91,051 margin an amendment that moved control of the sewer system back out of the hands of the Board of Water Supply and into the control of the Department of Public Works.

In 1998, then-Mayor Jeremy Harris suggested the board rebate more than $75 million to customers, while the agency wanted to use that money for repairs of the water system, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

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